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Ambien, which is also known by its generic name zolpidem, is one of the most frequently prescribed medications in the United States and several other countries. Used to induce sleep (although not to keep people asleep), Ambien is a medication in a class of drugs known as the imidazopyridines. Basically, this means that Ambien and medications like it are not tranquilizers. They work by activating sites on neurons known as GABA-A receptors. Like some other medications in this group, Ambien reduces nerve activity, and reduce anxiety, muscle movement, and recall of memories. When you take Ambien, you want to plop down into a relaxed position and fall asleep. You don't feel bothered by the events of the day, and you can fall asleep. Ambien is also hypothermic. It turns down your body's thermostat so you aren't as energetic or as bothered by heat or fever.

There are several problems with using Ambien. One is that if you have to get up in the middle of the night after taking it, your memory, attention, balance, and metacognition (the ability to consider the "bigger picture") are seriously impaired. These effects wear off the next morning, but they are a significant impairment until the regular time for waking up. Sometimes users of Ambien are awakened in the middle of the night and they go on an eating binge. Sometimes users of Ambien are given important information during the night (an important late night telephone call, for example), and they have no memory of receiving it. In a small number of cases there can be sleep walking (a man on Ambien in Australia fell to his death when he sleepwalked off his fourth floor balcony) or sleep driving, operating a motor vehicle while completely asleep. There are also reported cases of sleep sex, which can be masturbation, sexual intercourse, or even rape of which the Ambien user is not consciously aware. Ambien has become a common date rape drug.

Another problem with taking Ambien is that the more often you take it, the less it works. Ambien is intended for use no more often than three to five times a week for no more than 12 weeks. The best indication for the medication is short-term insomnia triggered by major stress, such as the death of a spouse or a child, losing a job, or experiencing a natural disaster. 

Using the drug more frequently interferes with its effectiveness, and taking a larger (15 mg instead of 10 mg) dose does not help. In just a few weeks, Ambien no longer induces sleep (unless it is taken in huge overdoses), although it may induce feelings of euphoria and power, but stopping Ambien causes seizures and delirium. 

Who is likely to become addicted to Ambien?

  • Because women's bodies metabolize Ambien more slowly than men's, women are more likely to become addicted to the drug. Women who take the contraceptive Pill are also more likely to become physically addicted to Ambien.
  • People with a previous history of drug abuse are more likely to become addicted to the drug.
  • People who start taking Ambien during the day, who mainline or snort Ambien, or who see multiple doctors to get multiple prescriptions for the drug are almost certain to become physically addicted.

Some people try buying Ambien online. Many unscrupulous online vendors will substitute the anti-psychotic medication haloperidol (Haldol). This drug can have serious side effects of its own, including permanent muscle problems that affect the face and neck. Just about anyone who tries to get multiple prescriptions for the drug will find that doctors will refuse any sleep aid prescriptions at all when there is a sign of abuse.

Just about the only way to deal with addiction is to come clean with your doctor and ask for other sleep aids to help you come off Ambien. You may have to taper off Ambien at the same time you start a medication in the benzodiazepine (tranquilizer) class, and you will later have to come off that drug, too. After a period of months of honest interaction with your doctor and probably a number of sleepless nights, most people can kick their Ambien habit. The process can be very unpleasant. It is far better only to take Ambien for a short time, no more than 12 weeks, and only as directed.

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